Long ago, the four cylinder engine was a gold standard of frugal transportation. In an era of large displacement V8 engines that were as approximately as efficient as your local driver’s license office, the four cylinder engine chiseled itself into American homes. As the gas crisis hit, these small engines started to make tons of sense, even if they lacked any form of performance.

As with anything, things got better, far better. Cars like the Dodge Omni GLHS, Honda Civic Type R, Mitsubishi Evolution and Lancia Delta Intergrale began to challenge the status quo. As time went on, we started to see basic economy cars turn into fire breathing monsters; mere shells of their former selves.

One perfect shining example of this is the infamous Dodge Neon SRT4. Long before the turbocharged Civic Type R and Ford Focus ST, the SRT4 was the king of front wheel drive four cylinder power. Producing an underrated 230 horsepower from a 2.4 liter four pot, the Neon was able to hit 60 in 5.6 seconds and cover the 1320 in just 14 seconds flat. That’s faster than a 1970 Chevrolet Chevelle SS454. A Dodge Neon, with a four cylinder. Yes you read that correctly.

Yet, the SRT4 is a touchy subject, largely because people truly love to hate this car. Admittedly, I was always slightly hard on these, even if I did secretly like them. I remember when they went on sale, and they were all the rage. A Dodge Neon that could run with V8 cars, and still maintained the practicality of a basic Neon. The whole package seemed so oddly perfect. The truth is, in many ways it was.

Yet, most people talk down heavily on them, as if the SRT4 was a committed felon. Sadly, most of these cars have been abused, modified poorly and become about as desirable as genital herpes. Finding a good example is like trying to find a reason that people eat Tide Pods; it’s basically pointless.

Yet, over the weekend, I took a guy road trip to Indianapolis to help my good friend Austin pick up his 2005 SRT4, it hadn’t been driven or started in roughly a year. I firmly believe we all felt as if getting it driving would be involving, but it wasn’t. More on that later.

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Upon opening the garage door, the sunlight set on a very mint condition orange Neon, very close in color to my Mirage actually.

A large upgraded front mount intercooler and side exit exhaust quickly gave me one impression, and that impression was that all of the stories I’d heard about this car were indeed very true. I’d heard this was a very rowdy and very visceral ride. Soon I’d find out just how true that really was. After drooling all over the paintwork of the SRT, we hopped into my car and went to get a new battery, some coolant and other basics to do some quick tuning up before the first start. Roughly an hour later, the car was running after being cranked for about .0001 milliseconds. It literally fired as soon as the key turned, and it was running like a brand new car.

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Always thought these looked so mean from the front
This gauge cluster quickly reminds you that this isn’t your aunt’s Neon

Just driving around town, the SRT4 with the aftermarket exhaust makes one of the best noises you’ll ever dream of hearing. Deep, cracking, snarling and pissed off is the best way to describe the sounds it makes. In the world of four cylinders, the 2.4 liter in the SRT4 is truly the vocalist of our generation. It really is that good. Something else good? Torque, lots and lots of torque. Cruising 30 miles per hour in fourth gear if you barely nudge the skinny pedal the Dodge quickly perks up and effortlessly blows through town. The power delivery of this particular car was extremely unique for me, and I really wish I could describe it properly. Just imagine having quick V8(ish) torque with a turbocharger that still makes power until roughly 6500 rpms. That’s the best way to paint this picture.

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I did a few spirited pulls in second and third gear, and I’ll just say that the SRT4 can make a half mile seem like a few yards. Second and third gear end very quickly and you immediately realize you’ve just broken virtually every legal speed limit in the United States. To sum up acceleration of this particular car, let’s just say it’s extremely good and this was on snow tires and low boost.

Handling was also good, again on snow tires. Roundabouts were easily tackled and S curves felt predictable, the SRT4 has a very playful side and is far from a dedicated straight line burner. Steering offers excellent feedback with no dead spots or vagueness, and response is very fast. Overall, this car felt like a true sports car. Just to reiterate, this particular car isn’t stock and does have suspension modifications.

Not everything is perfect though. You see, these cars are hated on because most people are quick to point out that it’s “just a Neon” at the end of the day. It’s just Dodge’s cheapest car churched up with a powerful engine. It’s just a shit box that can go well in a straight line. It’s always going to be a Neon.

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Here’s my take on this, because I have a lot to say. Yes, it’s still a Neon. The interior is still lackluster, save for the supportive sports seats. The dash, door panels, and steering wheel all come from a basic Neon just like your high school teacher drove. The interior looks cheap, feels cheap, and is cheap. The center heating vent droops like a English Bulldog’s face and doesn’t aim anywhere near where you want it to go. There’s squeaks and rattles. The rear seats don’t fold down, and that hurts practicality. The large rear spoiler make rearward visibility slightly interesting. Finally, at the end of the day, it’s just a Neon, and you can’t escape that.

Oh, and the gauge cluster? Well if there was ever any doubt that you’re not in a standard Neon, the SRT4 script may help eliminate that. If you’re still not sure, the 160 mile per hour speedometer will definitely remind you that you’re in something neat. Something else that isn’t shared with a basic Neon is the pedals, I say this because the pedal box is very tightly and correctly spaced for heel toe driving. I found myself properly heel toeing within about two minutes of driving this car. Well done Dodge!

However, to say the SRT4 is just a Neon is like saying the almighty E46 M3 is just a 323ci. The M3 rocks a basic model dash, basic model door panels, and makes up for it with a bespoke engine and suspension upgrades. The SRT4 has a bespoke engine, and many other bespoke components as well.

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The next time someone says the SRT4 is “just a Neon” kindly remind them that some of the best cars a normal person can afford just so happen to be based on basic crappy cars. That’s virtually every M3 in existence.

So we know the SRT4 is hated because it’s a Neon. It’s not a perfect car, and it has many shortcomings. However, it is a purpose built car, and in my opinion, it handles that purpose very well. It handles well, it accelerates very well, and returns decent fuel economy. There’s just one thing it does very well, and it’s the most important aspect of car buying for me. This would be feel, and the SRT4 feels special. The way it drives, the way it sounds, just the overall emotion is truly profound. It feels special because it IS special. There wasn’t one second that I was driving this car without smiling. Driving this car felt like meeting your childhood hero and then getting their autograph. It’s something you just need to drive to understand.

This car sucks at many things, but whether or not you hate it, you cannot deny its performance. This car is a 2005 and it will still turn the quarter mile faster than any front wheel drive car you can buy new aside from the gaudy Civic Type R. It feels far better than the Focus ST that disappointed me months back. The SRT4 raised the bar over a decade ago, and truth be told… the bar is still basically right where Dodge left it. For that reason, I’m going to say the SRT4 is one of the best front wheel drive performance cars of all time, and one of the best four cylinder cars you can buy. I believe in the future that one of these in the condition that Austin’s is in will become collectible, and some day we will talk about when you could get a clean SRT4 for just $5000-$6000.

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Final Thoughts

The SRT4 is a hilariously entertaining car to drive, and it provides some good practicality. I’m six foot tall and easily fit in the back seat without compromising on leg room. The trunk is reasonably large and would easily accommodate a few people on a road trip. Overall, the SRT does everything good that a Neon always did; reliable and reasonable transportation. However, it does everything good that a basic Neon didn’t; excellent performance, amazing driving character, and a superb exhaust note that makes just about anyone envious.

If you hate these cars, that’s absolutely fine, as most people do. I challenge you to find a decent example and take it on some twisty roads and open it up a few times. Upon doing this, you may just find the same conclusion that I have. That conclusion is simple for me...

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The SRT4 has many shortcomings. Many. For me, those shortcomings become minuscule in comparison to the upsides that the car offers. In fact, I think I may pick one up here in the future for myself. On that interesting twist, on to giving this car a overall score.

The Score

Styling

Styling is always subjective, but I find this car to be handsome. The orange paint, the aggressive front bumper with the intercooler poking through and the tall rear spoiler just works here. 6/10

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Acceleration

This car of course has some choice modifications and that helps out here I’m sure. I don’t know the 0-60 time but I do know it’s a very quick car. 7/10

Handling

Handling is very composed and tight, the upgraded sway bars and lowering springs all come into play. I found the steering to be very amazing and direct as well. 7/10

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X Factor

So you’re wondering, what is this category? This category measures the car’s ability to excel at one thing better than any other car. What does it do better than other cars in this class? The SRT4 offers a powerful turbocharged engine with a manual transmission only. This is clearly an enthusiast minded vehicle and when it debuted, there’s wasn’t truly any serious rivals. This makes this car very unique and very cool. 8/10

Importance

The SRT4 was one of the first SRT vehicles for Chrysler, and was a performance twist on the successful Neon. Dodge offered an ACR variant of this same car, making it even more important if you know the ACR heritage. This was a huge ballsy step, and a very cool one when it came out. Some day, these will get to collector status. 7/10

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Comfort

The sport seats may be tight for bigger passengers, even if they are one of my favorite features. The ride is harsh and not quite forgiving. This is a rough area, but this is a performance car. 2/10

Features And Equipment

This isn’t a good area for this car. The front windows are power, the rear are crank. The only feature this car has is a turbocharger. Beyond that, this thing is more Spartan than Leonidas. 1/10

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Practicality

This is a four door with reasonable space. The rear seats are comfortable enough and I was just fine riding back there. The trunk is fairly spacious and there’s room for bags on a trip. The fuel economy is in the 20s and that’s respectable for any performance car. 6/10

Quality

As with any turbocharged performance car, reliability is a mixed bag. This car made an easy 270 mile trip home with no issues and has been reliable. However, these are known for transmission issues with increased power. 5/10

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Value

Let’s talk value. These can be had needing work for under $2,000 while good examples can be had for around $5000-$6000. At the 5-6k range I struggle to find other cars that deliver so much, and offer so much excitement. These cars aren’t for everyone, but there’s a strong chance if you’re reading this, you’re a car enthusiast. This is an easy 10/10

Analyzing The Score

59/100, making this car a pretty strong score. As you can tell, it lacks in the features and equipment areas, and comfort is lacking a bit. However, in all of the enthusiast minded categories, the SRT4 shines. This makes perfect sense because this car is far from a BMW 3 series. The SRT4 is a performance focused car and it does this very well. If you’re willing to compromise on features and comfort, you get a hilarious amount of fun in return.